9 Mar 2013

Driven - Mercedes-Benz B220 CDI Sport

Matt Hubbard drives the new Mercedes B Class in 220 CDI Sport form

The Mercedes B Class tries to pull off the trick of not looking huge on the outside whilst being extremely commodious on the inside but fails to a certain extent.  It's tall for a start, and quite long. In fact it's 10cm taller, 10cm longer, and 2cm wider, than a Mk7 Golf.  Most of that height has been taken up by the high waistline which, because it uses no more stylistic design tricks than a curve at the top and a diagonal line, looks strangely huge.

The front end has been stretched upwards too.  The bonnet curves up at a steep rake to the windscreen. In fact the rear is the only area that doesn't look strange.  The 18 inch wheels look tiny compared to the body.  In isolation the B Class doesn't look large, but next to a competitor it looks slightly big and daft.  I'm not sure I like it.  In fact every time I see it I like it's looks a little less.

Tear your eyes away from the exterior and climb inside and it becomes apparent where all that size goes.  The B Class is vast inside.  The seats are tall so legs dangle down rather than sit out in front.  Three adults would fit across the rear seat comfortably, and in comfort.  The space between the driver and passenger is sufficient to ensure no elbow bashing takes place.  The boot is bigger than some estate car's boots.  Deep as well as tall.

Trim levels are adequate although after spending time in higher spec Mercedes it is always a comedown to feel hard plastic under one's fingers rather than plush leather.  Still, when a car costs £28,000 rather than £100,000, the materials budgets are slightly tighter.

The steering wheel is always one of the best appointed items in any level Mercedes and this is no exception - thick, leather, feels high quality.  The dash layout is clear and uncluttered and the 7 inch screen atop the dashboard contains the satnav so to put it close to the eye's route to the road is sensible, if a little 'after-market' looking.

I haven't properly got to grips with Mercedes' COMAND system in any car I've used it in.  COMAND costs £2100 in the B Class and features the above screen, DAB, satnav, media interface etc.  The controls are quite confusing and don't integrate well with one another.  Several buttons and two knobs control it and, for example, you find yourself either changing radio stations or changing from audio to satnav when all you want to do is turn the volume down.

The driving position is hard to get to grips with.  For a start you sit so far back from the windscreen that it feels odd at first.  The drivers posterior is behind the centreline of the car, despite the huge space in the back seats and boot.  The steering wheel and automatic gearstick are easy enough to reach and get comfortable with but it's the pedals that caused me and the B Class to really fall out.

The accelerator pedal is OK because it can be operated with one's right heel on the floor.  The brake, though, sits off the floor, and is so close to the seat that the foot has to approach it from above - but the drivers seat isn't high enough for this to be comfortable.  After much deliberation I settled on resting my heel on the floor but taking it off the floor when using the brake - even feathering it.  In a traffic jam this would get severely annoying.  With more than 50% of the cars length taken up by the engine, bulkhead and drivers legs I couldn't help but feel this is a design fault rather than a space restricted compromise.

Which is a pity because the B 220 CDI Sport I drove is a fine car on the go.  The ride is smooth and the handling a great balance between refined and sporty.  The engine is a 2.2 litre turbodiesel with 168hp and tows the car along at a sprightly rate if required.  It's not too heavy either, at 1500kg.  The cabin is quiet and refined and the engine doesn't make the awful din that the same unit in the C Class does.

In fact, I couldn't fault the way the B Class drives at all.  Plant the throttle and the 7 speed semi-auto engages kickdown and propels it forwards.  In the corners it remains balanced with not too much roll.  No squeaks and rattles.  No crashing and banging over potholes.  Mercedes' engineers have done a great job on the chassis and of accommodating the cars height.

The gearbox lets itself down every now and again.  It can get in a tangle and stick in gear, not wanting to change gear - and all the while you're urging it, shouting at it to change because it's sitting on the limiter.

But drive it anywhere that braking is required and that problem comes back.  Lifting my left leg to brake became a real drag.  I am 5 foot 10.  Not a giant by any means.  Maybe someone shorter would get along fine with the distance between knee and foot reducing to the perfect pitch twixt seat and pedal.

With it's strange looks and high brake pedal I wouldn't recommend the Mercedes B Class unreservedly, although to anyone under 5 foot 6 and with a different aesthetic appreciation to me it may be the perfect car.  I wanted to like it.  It's a different approach but I prefer to sit in a car and stretch my legs out, rather than scrunch them up.


Car - Mercedes-Benz B 220 CDI Sport
Price - £27,880 (£38,300 as tested)
Engine - 2.2 litre, inline 4, diesel, turbo
Transmission - 7 speed automatic, 4WD
Power - 168bhp
Torque - 258lb ft
Weight - 1500kg
0-62mph - 8.3 seconds
Top speed - 137mph
Fuel consumption - 61.4mpg combined